The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 1914-1916

The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 1914-1916

The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 1914-1916

The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 1914-1916

Synopsis

Lionisation of the volunteers who answered the call to arms in 1914-1916 has tended to obscure analysis of why so many citizens were prepared to face death on a foreign field. Silbey explores the motivations at work in Britain during the first years of the Great War.

Excerpt

If you are over the age of 18, can read and write successfully, pass the very strict medical examination, if your eyesight and hearing is to a very high standard, you may serve His Majesty King George the Fifth, the Commander of all the British Army, the Royal Navy, Emperor of India, Commander of all his Colonial Forces all around the world, the sun never sets on his Empire.

Years later, J.W. Roworth, an unemployed labourer, would remember the words of the recruiting sergeant. He thought them a 'mouthful', but enlisted anyway. He was not alone. After Britain entered the First World War on 4 August 1914, British men volunteered for military service at a rate never before seen in her history. By December, more than 1 million had enlisted. By the end of 1915, more than 2.5 million had joined. These volunteers made up half of all British servicemen in the First World War. They fought in Britain's most sanguinary war. They were the soldiers who marched forward at the Somme. They were the soldiers who slogged through the mud at Passchendaele. They were the soldiers who absorbed the Germans' spring offensive of 1918, and then, through the summer, pushed them back to the border of Germany. They were the soldiers who fought and won the war for Britain.

Historians, however, have focused only on a small subset of these volunteers, those of the upper and middle classes. Such a focus has ignored the larger part of the rush to colours, for the vast majority of the volunteers were working class. They came from the mines, from the factories, and from the workshops. They came from cities and the country. They came from Scotland, Wales, and England. They came from occupations where employment was plentiful, from occupations where employment was scarce, and from occupations where employment was non-existent.

Why were working-class men so willing to fight? The pre-war era had seemingly provided them with little incentive. They had a deep and abiding suspicion of the government, a suspicion returned by the ruling classes. There was little sense of cooperation between the two groups. The working class had experienced stagnant wages and rising unemployment. They had gone on strike for better working conditions with only limited success. They looked forward to a general strike in

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